Vault Finding #5

In this raid on the archives, I’ve paired one of my earliest posts with an unpublished draft on the French Situationists. With a bit of luck, you can’t see the join!

Image result for you can't see the join morecambe and wise I find it sad that children today don’t occupy the streets and open spaces like we did when I was young. There have always been risks in such freedom but we made a habit of going around with our friends, rarely if ever alone. We knew the dangers and were able to avoid them. So many kids were out and about, there was safety in numbers. With more adults around, too, we behaved ourselves most of the time because we didn’t want to get into trouble. In this way, we learned how to take responsibility for ourselves.

Sitting alone in your bedroom is not a healthy substitute, especially when you factor in the online risks and bad cyberspace influences that would shock many parents. It’s a case of out of the frying pan into the fire, I’m afraid. Let’s make the open air a place for youngsters again, providing proper facilities and a sensible but not stifling adult presence. It would be quite a challenge but I can’t think of a better way to create the communities of the future …

Well, I said we behaved ourselves but we probably weren’t above adding the occasional daft moustache or blackened tooth to advertising hoardings that showed people leading impossibly perfect lives. We might even have changed the odd word here and there … 

That ever-perceptive poet Philip Larkin captured the historical moment much better than I can:

In frames as large as rooms that face all ways
And block the ends of streets with giant loaves,
Screen graves with custard, cover slums with praise
Of motor-oil and cuts of salmon, shine
Perpetually these sharply-pictured groves
Of how life should be. High above the gutter
A silver knife sinks into golden butter,
A glass of milk stands in a meadow, and
Well-balanced families, in fine
Midsummer weather, owe their smiles, their cars,
Even their youth, to that small cube each hand
Stretches towards.

from ‘Essential Beauty’

That small cube? Oxo, of course, the magic ingredient without which family life was incomplete … nay, inconceivable! 

Image result for oxo advert

Image result for oxo advert

Surrounded by such propaganda, how could us kids have known that while we roamed those 1950s streets a bunch of French intellectuals were turning our natural instincts into a whole new heavyweight philosophy?

We didn’t have the benefit of Wikipedia, of course, without which the following mock-academic account could not exist:

With cultural roots in Dadaism and Surrealism – and political roots in Marxism – the Situationists believed that the shift from individual expression through directly-lived experiences, or the first-hand fulfilment of authentic desires, towards individual expression by proxy through the exchange or consumption of commodities, or passive second-hand alienation, inflicted significant and far-reaching damage to the quality of human life for both individuals and society.

Another important concept of situationist theory was the need to counteract the spectacle – essentially the mass media that reduces free citizens to passive subjects who  contemplate the world as no more than a consumable resource. The method the situationists adopted was the construction of situations – moments of life deliberately contrived for the purpose of reawakening authentic desires, experiencing the feeling of life as adventure and the liberation of everyday existence.

The dérive – a French word meaning ‘drift’ – is a revolutionary strategy originally put forward in 1956 by Guy Debord who defined it as “a mode of experimental behaviour linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances.”

It involves an unplanned journey through a landscape, usually urban, in which participants drop their everyday relations and “let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there”. Though solo dérives are possible, Debord indicates that the most fruitful numerical arrangement consists of several small groups of two or three people who have reached the same level of awareness, since cross-checking these different groups’ impressions makes it possible to arrive at more objective conclusions.

The dérive‘s goals include studying the terrain of the city (psychogeography) and emotional disorientation, both of which lead to the potential creation of Situations.

A détournement‘rerouting or hijacking’ in French – is a technique developed in the 1950s and defined in the Situationist International’s inaugural 1958 journal as “the  integration of present or past artistic productions into a superior construction of a milieu. In this sense there can be no situationist painting or music, but only a situationist use of those means. In a more elementary sense, détournement within the old cultural spheres is a method of propaganda, a method which reveals the wearing out and loss of importance of those spheres.”

It has been defined elsewhere as “turning expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself” – as when slogans and logos are turned against their advertisers or the political status quo.

Détournement was prominently used to set up subversive political hoaxes and stunts, an influential tactic called Situationist Prank that was reprised by the punk movement in the late 1970s and inspired the anti-consumerist culture-jamming movement in the late 1980s.

Its opposite is recuperation, in which radical ideas or the social image of people who are viewed negatively are twisted, commodified and absorbed in a more socially acceptable context.

Yeah, don’t get me started on how Tin Pan Alley moguls turned the exciting runaway underground of 1960s sounds into the long slow mogadon-music snooze of the 1970s. You’ll never hear the end of it …

I’ll end with a short clip that shows how people behave online compared with face-to-face!

 

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Vault Finding #4

Looking through my unpublished drafts, I found this intriguing quotation. The only thing I know for sure about it is that the words aren’t mine. But they did prompt me to write the poem which follows.

“I was talking this week to a friend who is dying. We talked about the meaning of death, whether our consciousness survived our passing, and if so in what form. We talked about the love in action he had experienced from his family, his friends and others during his illness. He described how humbling and touching this was, while tears of joy welled up in his eyes.

We soon realised that in talking about the meaning of death, we were at the same time talking about the meaning of life. How that special human quality which infuses our lives with true meaning and deep satisfaction – the sharing of love through action – somehow survives beyond our brief physical life here, to live on within the hearts and lives of those who remain. Who then in turn pass this on, relayed in pure undiluted form, when their own time comes. An essence of life that is unbound, and eternal.

We then wondered whether we were in fact talking about heaven – and if so, how lucky we were to have found heaven on earth.”

This has certainly struck a chord with me so I’ll take the liberty of adding a few words of my own by way of response. With apologies to Franz Kafka, William Faulkner and Johnny Rotten!

no future
for you are now
and only now

what then

no then
for you are now
and always now

no once upon a time
the past is never dead
it is not even past

for you

are always
only
ever
now

and always now
you are forever
if only in the thoughts
of those who know you

now

like a spotlight
moving through the dark

ever a bright spark
to kindle fires
of fierce remembrance

ever a steady point of light
where now


and now

and now
the dark is not

 

so dance

 

Image result for american indian dance

 

Image: World Arts West

Vault Finding #3

As an amateur blues harmonica player, I’m always reading instruction books. One of the best managed to sweet-talk me through the tricky early-days business of bending notes – dropping your jaw is the key, I reckon – by alternating gentle practical guidance with support for my bruised beginner’s ego. The support took the form of little stories along these lines:

You’re standing in the wings, listening to the band play. The guitarist beckons you on. You don’t want to spoil things so you blow a safe note. To your surprise it blends in perfectly. The guitarist nods and smiles. So far, so good. You’re in business.

For me, the psychology worked. The message: sure, this is tough but think of the gratification to come! 

I just came across the following clip in my unused archives and recognised the same patient, encouraging tone. Success at anything is all about deferring gratification. And I don’t think you have to be a harmonica player to recognise the teaching skills on display here:

On the subject of excellence, how about this crystal-clear explanation of what made drummer John Bonham the driving force behind Led Zeppelin? Once again, I think, good teaching enhancing an experience of intrinsic value. Doubly excellent, you might say …

And finally, while I’m recycling examples of communication about music, how about this for sonic magic? Music is our common birth-right, although few attain this level of performance. Still, we all know enough to acknowledge excellence when we hear it. Surely life’s real joybringers are those like Anna-Maria who are willing and able to share its secret mysteries?

What floats your boat when it comes to music? I’d love to hear a favoured example of musical excellence from you. Or maybe a charmed explanation?

Vault Finding #2

Continuing my trawl through old unpublished drafts, here are some random thoughts on the rules of arguing that still seem timely and relevant:

“In disputes upon moral or scientific points let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.”Arthur Martine

Worth remembering, I believe, especially when we deploy the artillery of our righteousness from behind the comfortable shield of the keyboard. That form of “criticism” is too often a menace of reacting rather than responding but it needn’t be this way. We can be critical while remaining charitable, aiming not to “conquer” but to “come at truth,” not to be right at all costs but to understand and advance the collective understanding.

Daniel Dennett – the American philosopher, writer and cognitive scientist – questions our current everyone-is-a-critic culture.

In his book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking – noteworthy for the significant value it places on ‘the dignity and art-science of making mistakes’ – he offers what he calls ‘the best antidote [to the] tendency to caricature one’s opponent’:  a list of rules formulated decades ago by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport, best-known for originating the famous tit-for-tat strategy of game theory. Dennett synthesizes the steps:

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

If only the same code of conduct could be applied to critical commentary online, particularly to the indelible inferno of comments. There is far too much shouting from the battlements. Comments that wholly diverge from the above code can and should be ignored, I believe, but merit response if they show understanding – or at the very least acknowledgement – of other points of view.

To anyone who views this as an unrealistic and naively utopian approach to debate, Dennett points out this is actually a sound psychological strategy that accomplishes one key thing – it transforms your opponent into a more receptive audience for your criticism or dissent, which in turn helps advance the discussion. When commenting on students’ written work, I tried to start with something I’d liked – it opened them to criticism.

A polite preamble means we don’t have to hold back when it comes to expressing our own disagreements. When the gloves come off we can employ Susan Sontag’s three steps to refute any argument – find the inconsistency, find the counter-example and find a wider context.

Image result for susan sontag

There’s a worrying lack of evidence behind much that is published online.

“Fake news is a real cause for concern on social media, particularly on Facebook, where unverified information and outright lies can swallow up facts and truth. That’s a frightening concept when 62% of American adults access news through social media.”

Iman Amrani, Guardian, 26.11.16

But it’s not an entirely new phenomenon.

“Back in the 1990s, the internet pioneer Josh Harris tried to sound a warning – but at that early utopian stage, when the web was assumed to be decentralising, democratising, enlightening, almost no one understood what he was saying. Later, in 2002. George W Bush’s own Voldemort, Karl Rove, chided a reporter by saying: ‘People like you are in what we call the reality-based community. You believe that solutions emerge from judicious study of the discernible reality. That’s not the way the world works any more.’ The gnomic taunt caused more bemusement than consternation at the time, but Rove was ahead of the game.”

Andrew Smith, Guardian, 26.11.16

This article goes on to talk about ‘post-truth’ where ‘facts become secondary to feeling; expertise and vision to ersatz emotional connection’ and ‘retro-truth’ where ‘a proposition is judged not by whether it is true or false when stated, but whether it has the potential to become true – like energy waiting to be released from the atom’.

I am the master of the universe.

(Well, thought I’d run it by you again to see if there was any take-up. Some of you might care to get a little campaign going on my behalf. I wouldn’t acknowledge it at first, of course, but don’t fret – in private there’ll be plenty smiling and waving practice!)

Yes, I jest, though my hectic humour hides a serious point. More and more these days I find a purely rational response insufficient. To inoculate myself against the poison I must infect myself – a small dose in the relatively safe form of art to build up my immunity. Art is ambiguous – no easy answers to be found there – but dives below the surface where fake news floats.

Listen, if you like, and maybe read …

 

I am the centre of this universe
The wind of time is blowing through me
And it’s all moving relative to me
It’s all a figment of my mind
In a world that I’ve designed
I’m charged with cosmic energy
Has the world gone mad or is it me?
I’m the creator of this universe
And all that is was meant to be
So that we might learn to see
The foolishness that lives in us
And stupidity that we must suss
How to banish from our minds
If you call this living, I must be blind
Songwriters: David Brock / Nik Turner
Master of the Universe lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC
Images: Brain Pickings & Wikipedia

Scraping the Barrel


Image result for the numskulls

This is an actual photo taken inside my head two minutes ago. It shows my inner progress chaser, who has just noticed my previous post is over a week old, hustling my inner creative director for a new one.

Hmm, could be a while, by the looks of it! Time to pour myself a beer. Perhaps the words will start flowing, too.

Image result for pouring bottled beer gif

I mean, it’s not as if there’s nothing to write about. If anything, there’s too much. The world is awash with woes and wonders. Where do you start?

And when you’ve started, then what? This, that and the other. Mostly the other, knowing your luck, after which you’ll scrabble around for a way to end the damn thing. Not with a bang but a whimper, more than likely! Then it’s Preview and … Publish!

Or Move to trash.

Question is, does the blogosphere really need another lament about how hard it is to come up with anything half worth saying? Should I not keep this guilty little secret under wraps and free up the ‘airwaves’ for those who really do have plenty to say for themselves?

Nah, feel my pain, peeps!

 

See the source image

 

PS  Well, that was nice. Fresh and hoppy with a hint of citrus. Pleasantly analgesic, too …